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Social media is harboring a new culture of quasi-religious influencers, preaching messages of spirituality, social justice, sustainability, and ultimately selfishness through a platform of self-care guides, bubbly captions, and eye-catching posts. For many modern millennials and youth, these influencers serve as their “religion”, embracing them as a model for their lifestyles and devoutly following the words of their chosen “prophet”.
However, these “religious” influencers are not as positive as they pretend to be. Behind the bright colors and appealing messages of Instagram religions hides a dark side that threatens to consume their followers in fake relationships and parasocial interaction. Beyond their cheerful demeanors lies a culture of deceit and inauthenticity: an artificial, substance-less community built on “humanistic individualism” – frankly, egomania.
The original concept of religion, by definition, is something that brings individuals together and forges connections to be a part of something greater than oneself – beyond simply guiding people to “do better”, religion guides its followers to pursue the right relationship between one’s self, others, and the divine.
Instagram, on the other hand, is considered by many to be by far one of the most narcissistic social media platforms. Influencers delete posts that don’t garner enough likes and attention, while compartmentalizing the best, most marketable parts of their lives and ideals into little boxes, fake snippets to share with the world. For many religious influencers on instagram, there is no meaning in their teachings beyond the attainment of marketability, and thus instead of living good lives, influencers encourage followers to spend their lives on their phones, consumed by technology and never living fully in the moment.
As author Leigh Stein puts it, “the whole economy of Instagram is based on our thinking about our selves, posting about our selves, working on our selves.” If Instagram only leads individuals to be self-absorbed, where, then, does the greater power come into play?
When established institutional religions meet an influencer, they take their follower’s focus away from the religion and place it on themselves and their own brands. Take, for example, Rev Chris Lee, a Christian vicar who has a larger following than the Church of England. On his account, Lee hosts Instagram Live sermons and posts about himself and his relationship with God. Though his message is undoubtedly a positive one, Lee himself admits that people sometimes focus on himself rather than his religion: “I’ve had women send me naughty pictures and ask for me to post more pictures of myself”. Evidently, influencers lead their audience to mistake the messenger for the message.
Other influencers, who forgo organized religion entirely in favor of a more spiritual message, grow narcissistic followings that more resemble a cult than religion. Indeed – by far the most egregious part of these Instagram religions lie in the twisted relationships that they invigorate.
Rather than the real, substantial bonds that form between followers of institutionalized religions, between people that actually share a common belief in a greater moral authority, Influencers and their followings often form parasocial connections.
Rather than a right relationship with the divine, the followers of Instagram religions form one-sided, obsessive relationships with their chosen influencer, developing a fake intimacy with the influencer that pretends to broadcast the inner aspects of their ideals and life while not really knowing the person behind the screen at all – the followers leave comment after comment on the influencer’s posts, pretending to communicate with their idol while never receiving a response.
As an interviewed classmate argues, “The religious institution doesn’t come from the messiah, it comes from others– religion comes from the devotees, not the founder. Jesus was not the founder of Christianity–the Twelve Apostles were.” The communities that form around influencers are formless and one-sided, bearing no true devotion to the influencer, as contradictory as that sounds–rather, they are drawn to the influencers as enablers, committing themselves to the selfish messages that they encourage rather than the actual religion. A huge part of what makes institutional religion so meaningful comes from communion with fellow believers, but where does that communion lie when all interaction is virtual?
The modern generations are so incredibly alone. We are the sole farmers on the field of innovation, a systematic deconstruction of tradition in favor of the cutting-edge, of the “modernity” of social media like Instagram that offer facile connections and corrupt customs like religion. As our civilization grows increasingly transient, it’s time to take a step back and think about what really matters: is it the individualistic philosophies of Instagram, or genuine, human connection that can unite the world and build our future?